By Katya Spiers, Film & TV Digital Editor
In celebrating Pride, it is important we recognise the legacies of members of the Black queer community. With this in mind, I’ve selected 3 of my favourite films directed by queer Black directors.
The Watermelon Woman (1996), dir. Cheryl Dunye
The first known film by a Black lesbian director, The Watermelon Woman centres around the director’s search for a mysterious and uncredited Black actress that appears in several films from the 30s, known only as ‘The Watermelon Woman’.
The watermelon was a symbol used in the US following the abolition of slavery in order to belittle the experiences of African American people. After being emancipated, Black communities in the South cultivated watermelon plantations and, threatened by their newfound freedom, ex-slave owners appropriated the watermelon as a symbol of the ‘unclean’ and ‘barbaric’ nature of Black people. Instead of crediting Black actors in the early to mid-twentieth century, some were dubbed with derogatory pseudonyms.
In a cross-section of documentary, romance, and sit-com, Dunye discovers the parallels that run a line between her own life and that of The Watermelon Woman, Fae Richards. Their lives, though more than 60 years apart, are somewhat roped together—the film becoming just as much about Dunye and her status as a Black lesbian filmmaker, as it is about the eponymous Watermelon Woman. This film explores the politics of interracial relationships, the fetishisation of Black bodies, and the difficulties faced navigating daily life as a Black person in the USA.
Fae Richards is not a singular figure, but rather stands in for a whole community of inspiring queer Black women, who have been erased from popular culture. The Watermelon Woman is an enquiry into the history of Black lesbian women in the film industry, as well as a call to change the voices who dominate the history books, giving a voice to people that would be otherwise forgotten. As Cheryl Dunye puts it, ‘sometimes you have to create your own history.’
Pariah (2011) dir. Dee Rees
‘This isn’t me,’ declares Alike (Adepero Oduye), standing in front of her parents as she wears a pink frilly cardigan that her mother has picked out for her. Pariah is the coming-of-age story of a girl navigating her sexuality, but unlike a lot of other coming-of-age films, Alike doesn’t feel the need to question herself and her sexuality. Instead, Alike is confident in her identity and her desires for a lesbian relationship. Despite constantly ditching her mother’s feminine dresses in favour of hoodies and baseball caps, and even harbouring a strap-on dildo in her family bedroom, Alike still has to battle to convince her conservative parents of who she really is.
Pariah is the second feature film of Academy Award-nominated Dee Rees. Set in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighbourhood, the film navigates the politics of being a strong, gay and proud teenager in a world which tries to deny your existence.
Rafiki (2018) dir. Wanuri Kahiu
The first Kenyan film to premiere at Cannes, Rafiki is a bold and chilling depiction of a teenage lesbian relationship in a country where gay sex is illegal, and in which the film itself has been banned. At its core, Rafiki is a sweet and innocent love story, foregrounded with all of the awkwardness and butterflies that come with a first love, but what lingers is the politicisation of the relationship between Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva).
From the opening scene, Kena is the subject of gossip and rumours spread by the owners of a cafe she frequents. These prying eyes continue to watch her as she navigates her life and friendships, forced to live in a panopticon where the community around her seeks to bring her down.
‘People turned up to see why this film was being banned. And I have to say, there were quite a lot of people who were disappointed that it was quite innocent, that it was quite light… a love story becomes less of a love story if it’s Black or if its queer and then more levels of politicization are assigned to it. I was just trying to make a love story.’ Kahiu in a previous interview
The idea that being part of a minority automatically attributes you with a certain responsibility is a problematic one: burdening people with the role of educator, or implying that they have to be representative of a whole community. As the protagonists get in the way of their fathers’ political campaigns, their relationship becomes a scapegoat for all of the unhappiness in the world around them.
These political tensions contrast with the lively cinematography which frames Kena and Ziki’s relationship, making you wonder why anyone could see this youthful love story as a threat.
Featured: Youtube / First Run Features, IMDb, Focus Features
Who are your favourite queer directors?